BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Because it is turning out better than expected, the World Cup is doing more good than harm to brand Brazil. The opposite is true for Brazil's brand of football.
The national team's grinding route to Tuesday's semifinal against Germany, its play pockmarked with fouls, gamesmanship and win-at-all-costs realpolitik, has driven a stake through the myth of Brazilian football as art and through the hearts of us fools who nurtured and clung to it.
I can't have been the only one before this World Cup who dusted off precious memories of falling under the spell of Brazil's yellow-shirted Selecao. Too young for the era of Pele, Brazilians who bewitched me were Zico and the teams of 1978 and 1982.
Nelinho's thunderbolt in the match for third place against Italy in 1978, arcing off his right foot across the penalty area and bending majestically beyond Italy goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff. Falcao against the Soviet Union in 1982, letting a pass from Paulo Isidoro run between his legs to Eder, who flicked the ball up and volleyed it in.
Eder celebrated by doing a forward roll. This wasn't just football, it was narcotic. Those teams didn't win the World Cup. But for those of us who weren't Brazilian, that didn't matter. We were hooked.
Even when Brazil reined in the beauty to win in 1994 and 2002, it still did enough to enchant. Bebeto's rock-a-bye-baby goal celebration against the Netherlands helped wash down the bile of Brazil drawing 0-0 with Italy in the final and needing a penalty shoot-out to secure its fourth World Cup.
The story of Ronaldo's resurrection, his eight goals with surgically repaired knee ligaments, put glitter on Brazil's fifth World Cup win in 2002. But South Korea won the FIFA award as the most entertaining team at that tournament it co-hosted with Japan.
Naively in hindsight, because of its glorious past, I tricked myself into believing this time that Brazil might want to shine on home soil, that its fine players would want to live up to the standards of predecessors who put the five stars — one for each World Cup win — on the shirts they now wear.
This, the marketers assured us, would be the Copa das Copas — the cup to beat all World Cups, a return after 64 years to the country that took a game born in England and elevated it to a higher plane. You can be sure that fans hummed Gilberto Gil tunes to themselves on flights over here, heads full of dreamy expectations and flashbacks of Socrates and other futebol sorcerers with one name and two magical feet.
And there has been fabulous football, but only smatterings of it from Brazil, mostly from Neymar, the team's principal entertainer now out with a broken back.